Take a drive down the scenic Potomac Corridor, and you will find the oldest Catholic church in the original 13 states. St. Francis Xavier Church in Leonardtown, Md., is celebrating its 350th anniversary of serving the Catholic community of southern Maryland. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, celebrated a Mass at St. Francis Xavier in June to mark the milestone.
From 1662 to 2012, Catholics have had a safe haven for faith here, within sight of the placid Chesapeake Bay. During Hurricane Sandy, the church suffered no damage, faring better than many parts of the East Coast.
Maryland has a rich Catholic history. In 1629, George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, a Catholic, asked King Charles I, a Protestant, for a charter to establish the province of Maryland as a haven for Catholics in the New World.
Calvert died in April 1632, but the Maryland Colony charter was granted to his son, Cecil, on June 20, 1632. Many scholars believe Maryland was named after the Virgin Mary. In 1634, the first settlers arrived, establishing the first capitol of St. Mary’s City. (The city can be visited today as a state museum that re-creates the 17th-century history. Early in the 20th century, archaeologists uncovered the original settlement, where the museum is now located. Visit StMarysCity.org.)
St. Francis Xavier lies along Maryland’s Route 243, a country road walled in by pines. Near the water’s edge, the forest drops away, yielding to scrub and farmland. Except for a paved road that turns to gravel and a modern tractor that plows a field, the land continues to look much as it must have to the eyes of the original settlers.
Religious freedom for Catholics, unique to Maryland among the colonies, made St. Francis Xavier’s founding possible.
The Catholic community at St. Francis Xavier has existed in some form since 1640, when gentleman farmer and county clerk William Bretton settled here, naming his property "the Manor of Little Brittaine." That year, Bretton invited Jesuit missionaries to come and serve Catholic settlers and present the faith to Native-American tribes, donating some of his own land to the missionaries. This area of Newtowne was the first settlement in Maryland after St. Mary’s City.
In 1661, Bretton and his wife, Temperance, donated land for Newtowne Catholics to build a chapel. That first chapel opened in 1662; it was torn down in 1719.
The current chapel dates from 1731. In 1984, the building underwent a restoration that preserved the traditional layout and furnishings.
The layout imitates the interiors of Protestant churches of the time. While the tabernacle and altar rest front and center, there is no center aisle. A large central row of pews is flanked by two narrow aisles and two smaller rows along the walls.
In the parish’s early days, this Protestant-looking design may have helped the church avoid destruction. Between 1655 and 1657, Puritans seized temporary control of Maryland’s previously religiously tolerant state government. Again, in 1689 and 1704 — during the Protestant Rebellion of 1689 and the establishment of the Intolerant Act of 1704; at this time the capital moved to Annapolis — Protestant agitators took hold of the state and passed laws unfriendly to Catholic missionary work. In 1718, Catholics were disenfranchised in Maryland. During this period, many Catholic churches were destroyed.
While anti-Catholicism eventually waned to some degree, the risk of an attack on St. Francis Xavier had not abated by the time the new chapel rose in 1731. Not until 1767 did it seem safe to build an addition, including a choir loft and vestibule — thus proclaiming the building’s religious purpose as a Catholic church. In 1816, a sacristy, confessional and waiting space were added.
A monument in front of the parish lists every pastor who served from 1647 to 1819. The parish remained in Jesuit hands until 1868. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1967, it became part of the Archdiocese of Washington. Cardinal James Hickey initiated the restoration process in the 1980s.
The results of this restoration are beautiful. A mural of St. Francis Xavier preaching in India forms the front altarpiece, which is bordered in colonial blue. In a triangular frame at the top, a Holy Spirit dove seems to fly toward the congregation.
Brass candlesticks that imitate the style of the period adorn the plain altar, along with white linens, trimmed with lace that looks handmade. Green plants brighten the sanctuary. Lanterns and candelabras along the walls illuminate Stations of the Cross in simple wooden frames.
Outside, the grounds continue the note of simplicity. Chrysanthemums and boxwood hedges border the front walk and the more recently constructed parish hall. Under a maple tree stands a modest Marian grotto, built of red brick and white wrought iron, bordered by blooming late roses.
In the vestibule, visitors can read a handwritten copy of the original deed for the chapel, dated 1661. The deed states that Bretton gave the land "with the hearty good likeing of [his] dearely beloved wife Temperance [sic]" and "to the greater honor and glory of almighty God, the ever immaculate Virgin Mary and all saints." Across from this document hangs a copy of Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic blessing on the parish, given earlier this year.
A great peace permeates the church and grounds. It is easy to imagine the life the first settlers led on this land, a life pared down to essentials. It is easy to feel the comfort they received from worship in this church. Their courage and fortitude under hostile conditions helped to make the Church in America possible for us.
In light of recent government encroachment on religious freedom, 21st-century Catholics can draw strength from the knowledge that so many faithful found refuge and achieved victory in this spot, even under persecution.
For the graces received here at St. Francis Xavier, for the graces we too can receive, we can give thanks.
Katy Carl writes from
Planning Your Visit
St. Francis Xavier Church
21370 Newtowne Neck Rd.
Leonardtown, MD 20650